(Disclaimer: Story by Rei Nakazawa; all rights to Wizards of the Coast)

The blood was still heavy in the air. It choked the kitsune?s sensitive senses, practically congealing in his throat. He resisted the urge to cough.

Eight-and-a-Half Tails had not stepped outside Susuki Village, let alone traveled this far away from it, for longer than he cared to remember. In that time, the horrors of the kami had faded in his mind, like a painting left out in the sun for too long. But it took just one drop of crimson to bring the colors flooding back.

The kitsune elder?s staff tapped the ground, the rings threaded through its head chiming together in a pleasing tone that seemed out of place in the carnage around him. The wreckage of several wooden carts scattered about the road told him that it was a trade caravan, and it was obvious that its ronin bodyguards did little good. Bales of cloth snaked across the grass, its lush green spotted with ugly blotches of red. As Eight-and-a-Half Tails passed, he noted one merchant?s robe torn apart, but not by kami. Obviously scavengers, human or otherwise, had already passed by.

The fields of waving grass before him whispered quietly, calmly. But here and there on the road in front were little signs: very large patches of trampled or burnt grass, an odd tree whose upper branches were snapped, a rock half-trampled into the hard soil. The road was also a path of kami destruction; who knew what else lay further down the trail?

Eight-and-a-Half Tails closed his pale blue eyes, gently bringing his spirit back to calm. The Sozenkan Mountains were still two days? journey away ? three if he took this kami-trampled path. He thought of his journey, of the contents of the simple woven-grass basket slung on his back. He thought of his people, back in Susuki, who doubtless knew by now that he had gone.

He thought of Hagi Village, and the little black pock-marks that dotted the body of almost every inhabitant. The plague had swept in like a summer squall, smelling of filth. Lord Konda ordered the village quarantined, but quietly allowed no more than five healers to deal with the victims, who lay moaning in the streets, without the strength to even tend to their own festering wounds.

He had gone in not even thinking of the possibility that he could be infected. He didn?t remember sleeping once in the next five days; every memory he had was of faces twisted with pain and fever, arms choked with ugly sores, children crying, poultices, herbs, potions, remedies, prayers.

They lost a quarter of the village, but saved three times more. When he woke up from his exhausted slumber two days later, he found he had his sixth tail.

It used to be a farm ? that much was obvious. But like the caravan on the road behind him, this too had been laid waste. The small house was folded in on itself, as if some force had sucked the walls in from within. What used to be a small stable, more a shack than anything, smoldered nearby, as a crushed cart creaked in the wind. Only the pathetically small rice paddy was untouched, its proud stalks waiting for a harvest that would never come.

Eight-and-a-Half Tails realized that it was on a farm no bigger than this that he himself had grown up. His father was no lord or mighty warrior, but a simple fox, making the best living he knew how. Yet even this humble one was, in the eyes of a young kit, a font of knowledge, teaching his son about the legendary ways of kami, of honor and strength, of the kitsune race itself, and how each fox grew new tails each time he did or learned something of great importance ? how the nine-tailed foxes were the wisest of all. He remembered, as a youth, wondering why this obviously wonderful father of his didn?t have nine tails, and becoming determined to do it himself.

But here, now, the only laughter or eager chatter sounded in his memories. There was no sign of whoever once lived here. He called out, but only the rustling rice plants answered. He turned to leave when a soft sniffling met his sharp, pointed ears. Gripping the rings of his staff so they wouldn?t chime, he softly made his way around the cart. There, a human girl, her face smeared with dirt, clutched her ragged kimono tighter around her, shaking in some unnamable fear. She was very young?

... Around the same age that he had been when he heard that a friend of his, son of a prominent priest, had been kidnapped by a group of human ronin samurai seeking ransom. Without telling his father, the young kitsune managed to track down the kidnappers all by himself, but knew that he could not defeat them all in combat. Going back to the village for help would take too much time; the kidnappers? deadline was near. Escape would also be impossible, unless?

He quietly crept about the cabin, among the sleeping samurai, tying bootlaces together, slipping a laxative herb into their jars of sake, and ?redistributing? gold from one samurai to another. The next morning, by the time the chaos, accusations, and fighting died down, all the kidnappers were dead or incapacitated, and the two kitsune were on their way home, one with his newly grown second tail.

Carefully, he kneeled beside the girl, who peeked around the other side of the cart to see if he was still there. ?Hello,? he said in a near whisper.

But even that small sound made the child jump. She tried to scoot away, but her flailing legs did not take her far at all. ?Please,? the kitsune continued gently, ?I?m here to help you.? He carefully passed a claw over an angry red welt on the child?s forehead. Murmuring some ancient words in a high-pitched fox tongue, he jangled his staff and prayed to the forces of creation to give relief. The girl?s eyes widened in surprise as the wound vanished. ?Do you feel better?? The child nodded firmly. ?Good. Are you alone??

She swallowed, hard. ?Mommy and Daddy are gone,? she replied in a thirst-rasped voice. It didn?t take much thought to determine what she meant.

?Is there anyone else here?? A shake of the head answered him. Eight-and-a-Half Tails nodded, taking off the straps that held his basket to his back. ?Come. I?ll take you to find other people.? There was a moment of hesitation, then a small bundle scrambled onto his back, hugging his neck tightly. The fox carefully rose, and the two left the now-abandoned farm alone to its fate.

The next sign of human habitation was a medium-sized merchant town that Eight-and-a-Half Tails knew as Kofu. The little girl watched in wonder as they passed wagons filled with polished lumber, street vendors loudly announced the presence of freshly cooked chicken kabobs, and women in flowing gowns chattered and laughed, barely paying any attention to the rather odd sight that slouched by.

As expected, there was a guard station set up by Eiganjo near the end of the main street. Such outposts were supposed to maintain order in Konda?s lands, as well as serve as first defense and warning should kami attack. More often than not, though, the samurai were much more successful at the second than the first. The young, bored looking samurai on watch raised an eyebrow in surprise when the two arrived.

?You are a long way from home, kitsune,? he said casually, his fingers barely brushing against his katana hilt. ?Is there trouble coming??

?None at all, it seems,? Eight-and-a-Half Tails replied, turning to observe the bustle around him. ?There were signs of kami attack about two miles down the road. It seems that you, and this town, were lucky.?

The samurai?s face paled noticeably. ?So it seems,? he said, regaining his composure in admirable time. ?And who is that?? He nodded towards the girl, who dropped to the ground and stepped to Eight-and-a-Half Tails? side, clutching at his kimono.

?She somehow survived a kami attack on her home. She has no family.?

The samurai stared down into the girl?s blank, tear-streaked face with a look that almost drowned the kitsune in its depth. ?The orphanage is full. The kami have hit this region hard of late. I don?t know if??

?I know you will do the right thing,? the kitsune replied, gently nudging the girl towards the samurai. ?I trust you.?